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When Titans collide: UPS petitions the PRC to change USPS costing methodologies

October 26, 2015

BY MARK JAMISON

The United Parcel Service is very concerned that you might be paying too much for a postage stamp.  

If you’re wondering why UPS would be worried about something like that, it has to do with the way postal rates are set.  According to the law, each USPS product is supposed to cover its share of the Postal Service’s operating costs, which includes costs attributable to that product as well as a share of total institutional costs.  

UPS believes that market-dominant products — First Class mail, Standard mail, and periodicals — are covering more than their fair share of the Postal Service’s operating costs, while competitive products — Priority and most shipping services — are not paying enough.

As a result, argues UPS, the average customer who buys a First-Class stamp is paying too much because part of the stamp’s price is being used to subsidize competitive products.  UPS wants the cost allocation methodology changed so that competitive products pay a larger share of the Postal Service’s operating costs. 

Then the Postal Service will to have to raise the prices of the products that UPS competes with, which will put UPS in a better competitive position and increase its profits.  UPS doesn't really care that some USPS customers are paying too much for postage.  UPS cares about UPS.

 

The UPS petition

UPS has been complaining about the costing methodology for many years, but in recent weeks it has intensified its efforts to get the Postal Regulatory Commission to do something about the problem.  In a petition recently filed with the PRC, UPS argues that the costing methodology used by the Postal Service and PRC is seriously flawed, and it recommends several changes that are intended to make the system fairer and bring it into compliance with the law.  (The UPS filing is in PRC Docket Number RM2016-2.)

Under the current system, says UPS, the Postal Service is using its monopoly powers to gain an unfair competitive advantage in the parcel delivery market.  UPS argues that the Postal Service should be allocating a larger share of its operating costs to competitive products, the products that compete with UPS.

If the PRC were to approve the UPS proposals, the Postal Service would need to raise the prices of its competitive products significantly — much more than the 9.5 percent increase announced a few days ago.  UPS would find itself in a much more competitive position.  It could raise its own prices and/or grab a larger share of the parcels market.  That would be good for UPS’s bottom line, but it would come at the expense of the Postal Service.

UPS is already the largest parcel delivery company in the world.  According to a 2014 Forbes article, the company claims 54 percent market share in the e-commerce package delivery market, as compared to FedEx, with 34 percent, and the Postal Service, with about 16 percent — a substantial part of which is providing last-mile service for UPS and FedEx.

In its most recent annual report, UPS shows earnings of $4.39 billion and earnings per share of $2.68. The report claims that UPS will return $30 billion to investors over the next five years.

This is not the picture of a company suffering from unfair competition.  But UPS apparently wants a bigger share of the pie.

The concerns that UPS raises in its petition in RM2016-2 are not wholly without merit, but they are overwrought and disingenuous.  That’s not surprising.  There’s a lot at stake. 

The proposals presented by UPS would affect not only affect the price of nearly every postal product but also the future viability of the Postal Service.  RM2016-2 promises to be a very significant docket.

 

Epic Fail for the Postal Service: The wrong model and the wrong BOG

March 23, 2015

BY MARK JAMISON

In 2001 Postmaster General Bill Henderson submitted the first blueprints for a transformation of the Postal Service into a sleeker, more efficient business entity.  To justify the transformation, the rhetoric has repeated one mantra: the problem with the Postal Service is its outmoded and defective business model.  

A great deal of our speech with public policy is often coded — for example, “makers and takers” can often sound a lot like “black and white” — but in this case Henderson and his successor Jack Potter were pretty clear about their goal.  The way forward for the Postal Service, they said, would include cuts to the workforce, post office closings, a smaller postal infrastructure, and a general retreat from the idea of the Postal Service as a universal service provider.

The big mailers talk about the “failed business model.”  Postal commentators going back to Murray Comorow and through Alan Robinson have talked about the ‘failed business model.”  The folks in Congress, Republicans particularly but also Democrats like Tom Carper, all bemoan the “failed business model.” 

In focusing on the idea of a “failed business model,” these voices were able to elude facts like the billions siphoned out of the Postal Service to support payments to the Retiree Healthcare Benefit Fund that were essentially unnecessary.   Any discussion of rationalizing rates in ways that didn’t involve simply handing over postal revenues to narrow interests in the mailing community was avoided.  The idea of supporting universal service and postal infrastructure with modest budget contributions from the federal government was rejected. 

Instead, everyone seemed to agree that the nation’s postal infrastructure must be totally self-sufficient.  That was the preference of postal management as well, since money from Congress never comes with no strings attached.  Management takes every opportunity to remind people of this.  At the end of every press release is this sentence: “The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations.”

 

The real problem

Assertions that the postal business model had failed reflected nothing other than a wish to apply a corporate model to a basic government service and function.  It didn’t matter that we had the most effective postal system in the world, a system that delivered more mail to more addresses at cheaper rates than virtually anywhere else.  It didn’t matter that our network of postal plants and post offices were the hearts of American communities.  It didn’t matter that the Postal Service provided 800,000 good jobs with good benefits, or that the income from these jobs flowed throughout local communities, supporting businesses large and small.

The sad fact is that none of the things that did matter to the average person mattered to those who set postal policy.  They had imbibed from the well that had transformed the American economy from an engine of shared growth and prosperity to a shell game that enriched the few at the expense of the many.  

In a little more than two generations we have watched as all the burdens of the economy have been shifted to those who work for a living.  We have seen the end of defined benefit pension systems, deteriorating access to employer-paid health insurance, and the rise of a model that eschews full-time work for part-time contract labor.  A successful postal business model has thus come to involve cheap labor, reduced service, and the privatization or outsourcing of public infrastructures.

But here’s a thought.  What if the problem with the Postal Service isn’t a failed business model at all? What if the real problem is a corporate structure that is ill suited to manage a fundamental infrastructure?  What if the problems of the Postal Service lay in a hidebound incestuous postal management system that has little accountability or oversight?  Could it be that our problems are related to a failure to properly distinguish between the management of government and the management of business?  What if the supposed failures of our postal system really reflect the failure of our society to value people, community, and basic public goods and infrastructures?

Who owns the Postal Service?

March 18, 2015

BY MARK JAMISON

Who owns the post office?  Who is the post office designed to serve?  What is the system’s ultimate function?

These questions are fundamental to the future and the fate of the post office, the postal network, and postal services in this country. How we answer them will have a significant impact on businesses, workers, and communities.

We know the Constitution instructs — or more accurately, permits — Congress to make arrangements for post offices and post roads.  That is a good indication that the Founders saw postal services and the infrastructure that supported them as broadly essential to the nation — nation in their reckoning being the sum of the people.

But Congress has abdicated its responsibilities.  It no longer functions as a deliberative body and has become increasingly ineffective as a legislative body.  The Postal Service's Board of Governors has proven to be equally ineffective and has left postal managers to run operations as they see fit.  The regulatory system is relatively limited and not really able to represent the interests of the public as a whole.

All in all, the Postal Service is simply not accountable to the American people in the way it should be — or the way it must be if it is to survive as a vibrant public postal system, as envisioned by the Founders

In the debates about the Postal Service, the public interest is too often forgotten.  It's worth quoting yet again the stirring words of Title 39:

"The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by Act of Congress, and supported by the people. The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities. The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people."

If these words are to mean anything, the leaders of the Postal Service, Congress, and the Executive branch must be reminded that the Postal Service is there to serve not some narrow economic interests but the people of the United States. 

 

 

The vision of the Founders

There are only a couple of mentions of the post office in the Federalist Papers, the set of writings by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay which offered the explanation and underlying reasoning that supported the new Constitution.  In Federalist 42, Madison wrote:

“The power of establishing post roads, must in every view be a harmless power; and may perhaps, by judicious management, become productive of great public conveniency. Nothing which tends to facilitate the intercourse between the states can be deemed unworthy of the public care." (emphasis added)

Benjamin Franklin certainly had a great deal to say about the post office.  As one of the inspirational leaders of the new nation and its first Postmaster General, Franklin clearly saw the importance and value of a robust postal system.  Early in his career as a printer and publisher, Franklin was disadvantaged because a competitor, Andrew Bradford, used his power as a postmaster to deny Franklin’s papers access to the postal system — an act that impressed upon Franklin the importance of broad access to the post.  In his biography of Franklin, Walter Isaacson says that the benefit of Franklin’s tenure as colonial postmaster, greater than the compensation he received, “was that it furthered Franklin’s conception of the disparate American colonies as a potentially unified nation with shared interests and needs.”

The Founders clearly recognized that an infrastructure that could serve to bind the nation together was essential not only for the free flow of information but also as a means of enhancing commerce. Washington even argued that newspapers and journals should travel the mails for free, while Madison suggested their cost be subsidized but that as matter of economy there should be a charge.  Whatever the expectations on funding or self-sufficiency, it is clear that the Founders saw a need for a public post, a postal system that belonged to and served the American people broadly.

Why Congress should not get out of the way of the Postal Service

November 23, 2014

BY MARK JAMISON

News that Ron Johnson, the Tea Party favorite from Wisconsin, will be taking over as chair of the Senate committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs has caused an overwhelming sense of panic among progressives and postal workers.  Johnson will control oversight of the Postal Service in the Senate.

There may be good reason to think this has the makings of disaster.  Johnson is on the record stating that it would be a good idea if the Postal Service went into bankruptcy and got privatized.  His training is in accounting, but he has refused, with an aggressive ignorance, to acknowledge the basic tenets of accounting.  When witnesses come before his committee, he bullies them and waves his arm abrasively.  His dislike of unions is so intense he’s willing to set aside his worship of the business principles of a contract to concoct a bankruptcy scheme to abrogate postal labor agreements. 

But is the coming of Ron Johnson any reason to panic?

Tom Coburn, the current ranking member on the committee, has said virtually all of the same things as Johnson (in his quiet, deadly way).   Several of the other Republicans on the committee — Rand Paul, Mike Enzi, and Kelly Ayotte — have also said many of the same things Johnson has.  All of them have shown a disdain for the Postal Service as an institution.  All of them have questioned the Postal Service role as a national infrastructure.

Never mind too that Tom Carper, the Democrat from Delaware and current chair of the committee, has endorsed virtually every cut, every closure, every act of outsourcing that PMG Donahoe has engaged in or even imagined.  On postal matters, his views are not that far from Johnson’s. 

 

It could be the end

While Ron Johnson will probably just carry on like Carper, Coburn, and the other Republicans on the committee overseeing the Postal Service, the specter of Senator Johnson as chair is haunting progressives. 

The sky is falling at Think Progress, where Kira Lerner tells us that with Johnson “it could be the end of the Postal Service as we know it.”  Lerner therefore hopes that Congress passes legislation — any legislation at all, bad as it might be — before Johnson can pass something worse.

But how likely is that the any legislation to come out of a lame duck session will be any good?  Anything likely to come out of the Senate would carve in stone the current agenda of cuts to the workforce, reductions in service, and secret NSA agreements.  Plus, any bill passed by the Senate would have to go to conference with whatever Darrell Issa comes up with in the House.  The result will be further degradation of the postal network.  There’s little chance it will make those who care about postal services in this country very happy. 

Over at Daily Kos, Laura Clawson seems just as frightened of Johnson as Lerner is.  Faced with Johnson’s statement that the Postal Service should go through a bankruptcy process, Clawson says, “Another solution is for Congress to get out of the way of the Postal Service making money providing needed services like banking for tens of millions of people who don't have access to financial institutions.”

Postal banking might be useful for the millions of unbanked citizens, but it’s worth giving this notion of “getting Congress out of the way” a bit more thought.  The idea seems to be almost everyone’s answer for what ails the Postal Service.  Blaming Congress is apparently something that folks everywhere on the political spectrum can agree on. 

That should come as no surprise, considering that Congress has become less popular than a shady used car salesman.  But would all be right with the Postal Service if Congress just got out of the way?

The answer to that depends a lot on what you want the Postal Service to do with its newfound freedom.

 

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